The Man in Lower Ten/Chapter 27
THE SEA, THE SAND, THE STARS
I TELEPHONED as soon as I reached my hotel, and I had not known how much I had hoped from seeing her until I learned that she was out of town. I hung up the receiver, almost dizzy with disappointment, and it was fully five minutes before I thought of calling up again and asking if she was within telephone reach. It seemed she was down on the bay staying with the Samuel Forbeses.
Sammy Forbes! It was a name to conjure with just then. In the old days at college I had rather flouted him, but now I was ready to take him to my heart. I remembered that he had always meant well, anyhow, and that he was explosively generous. I called him up.
"By the fumes of gasoline!" he said, when I told him who I was. "Blakeley, the Fount of Wisdom against Woman! Blakeley, the Great Unkissed! Welcome to our city!"
Whereupon he proceeded to urge me to come down to the Shack, and to say that I was an agreeable surprise, because four times in two hours youths had called up to ask if Alison West was stopping with him, and to suggest that they had a vacant day or two.
"Oh—Miss West!" I shouted politely, there was a buzzing on the line. "Is she there?"
Sam had no suspicions. Was not I in his mind always the Great Unkissed?—which sounds like the Great Unwashed and is even more of a reproach. He asked me down promptly, as I had hoped, and thrust aside my objections.
"Nonsense," he said. "Bring yourself. The lady that keeps my boarding-house is calling to me to insist. You remember Dorothy, don't you, Dorothy Browne? She says unless you have lost your figure you can wear my clothes all right. All you need here is a bathing suit for daytime and a dinner coat for evening."
"It sounds cool," I temporized. "If you are sure I won't put you out—very well, Sam, since you and your wife are good enough. I have a couple of days free. Give my love to Dorothy until I can do it myself."
Sam met me himself and drove me out to the Shack, which proved to be a substantial house overlooking the water. On the way he confided to me that lots of married men thought they were contented when they were merely resigned, but that it was the only life, and that Sam, Junior, could swim like a duck. Incidentally, he said that Alison was his wife's cousin, their respective grandmothers having, at proper intervals, married the same man, and that Alison would lose her good looks if she was not careful.
"I say she's worried, and I stick to it," he said, as he threw the lines to a groom and prepared to get out. "You know her, and she's the kind of girl you think you can read like a book. But you can't; don't fool yourself. Take a good look at her at dinner, Blake; you won't lose your head like the other fellows—and then tell me what's wrong with her. We're mighty fond of Allie."
He went ponderously up the steps, for Sam had put on weight since I knew him. At the door he turned around. "Do you happen to know the MacLure's at Seal Harbor?" he asked irrelevantly, but Mrs. Sam came into the hall just then, both hands out to greet me, and, whatever Forbes had meant to say, he did not pick up the subject again.
"We are having tea in here," Dorothy said gaily, indicating the door behind her. "Tea by courtesy, because I think tea is the only beverage that isn't represented. And then we must dress, for this is hop night at the club."
"Which is as great a misnomer as the tea," Sam put in, ponderously struggling out of his linen driving coat. "It's bridge night, and the only hops are in the beer."
He was still gurgling over this as he took me up-stairs. He showed me my room himself, and then began the fruitless search for evening raiment that kept me home that night from the club. For I couldn't wear Sam's clothes. That was clear, after a perspiring seance of a half hour.
"I won't do it, Sam," I said, when I had draped his dress-coat on me toga fashion. "Who am I to have clothing to spare, like this, when many a poor chap hasn't even a cellar door to cover him. I won't do it; I'm selfish, but not that selfish."
"Lord," he said, wiping his face, "how you've kept your figure! I can't wear a belt any more; got to have suspenders."
He reflected over his grievance for some time, sitting on the side of the bed. "You could go as you are," he said finally. "We do it all the time, only to-night happens to be the annual something or other, and—" he trailed off into silence, trying to buckle my belt around him. "A good six inches," he sighed. "I never get into a hansom cab any more that I don't expect to see the horse fly up in the air. Well, Allie isn't going either. She turned down Granger this afternoon, the Annapolis fellow you met on the stairs, pigeon-breasted chap—and she always gets a headache on those occasions."
He got up heavily and went to the door. "Granger is leaving," he said, "I may be able to get his dinner coat for you. How well do you know her?" he asked, with his hand on the knob.
"If you mean Dolly—?"
"Fairly well," I said cautiously. "Not as well as I would like to. I dined with her last week in Washington. And—I knew her before that."
Forbes touched a bell instead of going out, and told the servant who answered to see if Mr. Granger's suit-case had gone. If not, to bring it across the hall. Then he came back to his former position on the bed.
"You see, we feel responsible for Allie—near relation and all that," he began pompously. "And we can't talk to the people here at the house—all the men are in love with her, and all the women are jealous. Then—there's a lot of money, too, or will be."
"Confound the money!" I muttered. "That is—nothing. Razor slipped."
"I can tell you," he went on, "because you don't lose your head over every pretty face—although Allie is more than that, of course. But about a month ago she went away—to Seal Harbor, to visit Janet MacLure. Know her?"
"She came home to Richmond yesterday, and then came down here—Allie, I mean. And yesterday afternoon Dolly had a letter from Janet—something about a second man—and saying she was disappointed not to have had Alison there, that she had promised them a two weeks' visit! What do you make of that? And that isn't the worst. Allie herself wasn't in the room, but there were eight other women, and because Dolly had put belladonna in her eyes the night before to see how she would look, and as a result couldn't see anything nearer than across the room, some one read the letter aloud to her, and the whole story is out. One of the cats told Granger and the boy proposed to Allie to-day, to show her he didn't care a tinker's dam where she had been."
"Good boy!" I said, with enthusiasm. I liked the Granger fellow—since he was out of the running. But Sam was looking at me with suspicion.
"Blake," he said, if I didn't know you for what you are, I'd say you were interested there yourself."
Being so near her, under the same roof, with even the tie of a dubious secret between us, was making me heady. I pushed Forbes toward the door.
"I interested!" I retorted, holding him by the shoulders. "There isn't a word in your vocabulary to fit my condition. I am an island in a sunlit sea of emotion, Sam, a—an empty place surrounded by longing—a—"
"An empty place surrounded by longing!" he retorted. "You want your dinner, that's what's the matter with you—"
I shut the door on him then. He seemed suddenly sordid. Dinner, I thought! Although, as a matter of fact, I made a very fair meal when, Granger's suit-case not having gone, in his coat and some other man's trousers, I was finally fit for the amenities. Alison did not come down to dinner, so it was clear she would not go over to the club-house dance. I pled my injured arm, and a fictitious, vaguely located sprain from the wreck, as an excuse for remaining at home. Sam regaled the table with accounts of my distrust of women, my one love affair—with Dorothy; to which I responded, as was expected, that only my failure there had kept me single all these years, and that if Sam should be mysteriously missing during the bathing hour to-morrow, and so on.
And when the endless meal was over, and yards of white veils had been tied over pounds of hair—or is it, too, bought by the yard?—and some eight ensembles with their abject complements had been packed into three automobiles and a trap, I drew a long breath and faced about. I had just then only one object in life—to find Alison, to assure her of my absolute faith and confidence in her, and to offer my help and my poor self, if she would let me, in her service.
She was not easy to find. I searched the lower floor, the verandas and the grounds, circumspectly. Then I ran into a little English girl who turned out to be her maid, and who also was searching. She was concerned because her mistress had had no dinner, and because the tray of food she carried would soon be cold. I took the tray from her, on the glimpse of some thing white on the shore, and that was how I met the Girl again.
She was sitting on an over-turned boat, her chin in her hands, staring out to sea. The soft tide of the bay lapped almost at her feet, and the draperies of her white gown melted hazily into the sands. She looked like a wraith, a despondent phantom of the sea, although the adjective is redundant. Nobody ever thinks of a cheerful phantom. Strangely enough, considering her evident sadness, she was whistling softly to herself, over and over, some dreary little minor air that sounded like a Bohemian dirge. She glanced up quickly when I made a misstep and my dishes jingled. All considered, the tray was out of the picture: the sea, the misty star light, the girl, with her beauty—even the sad little whistle that stopped now and then to go bravely on again, as though it fought against the odds of a trembling lip. And then I came, accompanied by a tray of little silver dishes that jingled and an unmistakable odor of broiled chicken!
"Oh!" she said quickly; and then, "Oh! I thought you were Jenkins."
"Timeo Danaos—what's the rest of it?" I asked, tendering my offering. "You didn't have any dinner, you know." I sat down beside her. "See, I'll be the table. What was the old fairy tale? 'Little goat bleat: little table appear!' I'm perfectly willing to be the goat, too."
She was laughing rather tremulously.
"We never do meet like other people, do we?" she asked. "We really ought to shake hands and say how are you."
"I don't want to meet you like other people, and I suppose you always think of me as wearing the other fellow's clothes," I returned meekly. "I'm doing it again: I don't seem to be able to help it. These are Granger's that I have on now."
She threw back her head and laughed again, joyously, this time.
"Oh, it's so ridiculous," she said, "and you have never seen me when I was not eating! It's too prosaic!"
"Which reminds me that the chicken is getting cold, and the ice warm," I suggested. "At the time, I thought there could be no place better than the farm-house kitchen—but this is. I ordered all this for something I want to say to you—the sea, the sand, the stars."
"How alliterative you are!" she said, trying to be flippant. "You are not to say anything until I have had my supper. Look how the things are spilled around!"
But she ate nothing, after all, and pretty soon I put the tray down in the sand. I said little; there was no hurry. We were together, and time meant nothing against that age-long wash of the sea. The air blew her hair in small damp curls against her face, and little by little the tide retreated, leaving our boat an oasis in a waste of gray sand.
"If seven maids with seven mops swept it for half a year
Do you suppose, the walrus said, that they get it clear?"
she threw at me once when she must have known I was going to speak. I held her hand, and as long as I merely held it she let it lie warm in mine. But when I raised it to my lips, and kissed the soft, open palm, she drew it away without displeasure.
"Not that, please," she protested, and fell to whistling softly again, her chin in her hands. "I can't sing," she said, to break an awkward pause, "and so, when I'm fidgety, or have something on my mind, I whistle. I hope you don't dislike it?"
"I love it," I asserted warmly. I did; when she pursed her lips like that I was mad to kiss them.
"I saw you—at the station," she said suddenly. "You—you were in a hurry to go." I did not say anything, and after a pause she drew a long breath. "Men are queer, aren't they?" she said, and fell to whistling again.
After a while she sat up as if she had made a resolution. "I am going to confess something," she announced suddenly. "You said, you know, that you had ordered all this for something you—you wanted to say to me. But the fact is, I fixed it all—came here, I mean, because—I knew would come, and I had something to tell you. It was such a miserable thing I—needed the accessories to help me out."
"I don't want to hear anything that distresses you to tell," I assured her. "I didn't come here to force your confidence, Alison. I came because I couldn't help it." She did not object to my use of her name.
"Have you found the—your papers?" she asked, looking directly at me for almost the first time.
"Not yet. We hope to."
"The—police have not interfered with you?"
"They haven't had any opportunity," I equivocated. "You needn't distress yourself about that, anyhow."
"But I do. I wonder why you still believe in me? Nobody else does."
"I wonder," I repeated, "why I do!"
"If you produce Harry Sullivan," she was saying, partly to herself, "and if you could connect him with—Mr. Bronson, and get a full account of why he was on the train, and all that, it—it would help, wouldn't it?"
I acknowledged that it would. Now that the whole truth was almost in my possession, I was stricken with the old cowardice. I did not want to know what she might tell me. The yellow line on the horizon, where the moon was coming up, was a broken bit of golden chain: my heel in the sand was again pressed on a woman's yielding fingers: I pulled myself together with a jerk.
"In order that what you tell me may help me, if it will," I said constrainedly, "it would be necessary, perhaps, that you tell it to the police. Since they have found the end of the necklace—"
"The end of the necklace!" she repeated slowly. "What about the end of the necklace?"
I stared at her. "Don't you remember"—I leaned forward—"the end of the cameo necklace, the part that was broken off, and was found in the black sealskin bag, stained with—with blood?"
"Blood," she said dully. "You mean that you found the broken end? And then—you had my old pocket-book, and you saw the necklace in it, and you—must have thought—"
"I didn't think anything," I hastened to assure her. "I tell you, Alison, I never thought of anything but that you were unhappy, and that I had no right to help you. God knows, I thought you didn't want me to help you."
She held out her hand to me and I took it between both of mine. No word of love had passed between us, but I felt that she knew and understood. It was one of the moments that come seldom in a lifetime, and then only in great crises, a moment of perfect understanding and trust.
Then she drew her hand away and sat, erect and determined, her fingers laced in her lap. As she talked the moon came up slowly and threw its bright pathway across the water. Back of us, in the trees beyond the sea wall, a sleepy bird chirruped drowsily, and a wave, larger and bolder than its brothers, sped up the sand, bringing the moon's silver to our very feet. I bent toward the girl.
"I am going to ask just one question."
"Anything you like." Her voice was almost dreary.
"Was it—because of anything you are going to tell me that you refused Richey?"
She drew her breath in sharply.
"No," she said, without looking at me. "No. That was not the reason."